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Arabian tribes and voting issues 21, April 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
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Tribal voting in the recent Poet of Millions talent contest perfectly highlights issues facing those seeking full democratic elections on the Arabian Peninsula.

The hugely popular Poet of Millions competition (the Gulf’s equivalent of ‘Pop Idol’) recently hit the headlines throughout the Middle East after a Saudi women – Hissal Hilal – won through to the final with controversial, politically and socially based poetry. Specifically, she heavily – if eloquently – criticised Saudi’s infamous religious police. This caused predictable uproar in conservative Saudi Arabia where women are – to put it crudely – to be neither seen nor heard.

Yet in the final, despite being awarded higher marks by the judges than the eventual winner, she came third. The winner instead was Nasser Al Ajami from Kuwait who triumphed thanks to 40% of the final and overall mark being decided by a public vote.

The Al Ajami tribe is one of the largest and most important tribes in the Gulf. In this instance, they embarked on a multi-million pound rigorously organised campaign to make sure Nasser won.

The National reports that the campaign began three weeks before the final event with a fundraising campaign. The depth and breadth of the vast Al Ajami tribe was plumbed and money and support sought. Apparently, somewhere in the region of £5million was raised. This was used to advertise Nasser and to send “bulk text messages through the country’s telecommunications companies to encourage Kuwaitis to vote.” This is in addition to Al Ajamis themselves voting multiple times. Naif Al Ajami, a distant relative, spent roughly £500 on voting 400 times.

Whilst the tribal nature of Arabian society is well known, this instance offers a perfect example of exactly what a tribe in action can do. This has direct relevance for those seeking democracy in the Gulf.

Kuwait, for example, is the most democratic country in the Gulf. Yet whilst this is praise-worthy, its Parliamentary system has been in a state of absolute gridlock for years. Other Gulf nations look to Kuwait with trepidation when they see the stagnating and divisive effects that ‘democracy’ can bring.

Kuwait has tried to sort out these difficulties by cutting the number of election districts from 25 to 5. This was to make it more difficult for richer politicians to buy votes as well as to break the monopoly of tribes on whole districts. Yet the power of the tribe could not be broken. Still tribes would (illegally) host ‘primaries’ to make sure that tribal members could have a ‘consensus candidate’.

None of this is to say that democracy is intrinsically incompatible with Gulf society, only to point out once more [can it be pointed out enough?] that if intrinsically Western ideas such as modern democracy are implemented elsewhere, they need to be adapted to indigenous systems.

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Kuwaitis seeking to gentrify their names by adding ‘al’ prefix 27, March 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait, The Gulf.
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Understanding tribal politics in the Gulf is exceedingly tricky. Whilst one can relatively easily identify numerous tribes and establish that they are originally considered to be bedu (historically quasi-nomadic people) or hadar (more settled people, often by the coasts) or from Iran, aside from generalized notions or clichés of Bedouin tribes being considered ‘less civilized’ than their hadar brethren, one is still mostly in the dark. How important are tribes today? What do tribes ‘do’? Are tribes little more than informal networks and the source of entrenched nepotistic practices? Do tribes still matter today when one no longer needs a tribe for physical protection?

Alas, as yet I can’t really answer too many of these questions, though I expect to get some answers this week.

The reason I bring up this topic is that I’ve come across a curious article about tribes in Kuwait. Seemingly many families are adding the prefix ‘Al’ to their names as they believe that this “gives them an advantage in business”. The survey reports that roughly 16,000 Kuwaiti nationals have does this in the last two decades to gentrify their family names to make them sound more regal and important. The author continues to conclude that Kuwaitis are doing this to follow the example of the ruling families of the region, the Al Sauds, the Al Sabahs and so on.

It must be said that the author doesn’t inspire confidence by writing

“Al”, meaning family…

as the basis of the article. It doesn’t. It means ‘the’. I realise perfectly well that if someone is called Abdullah bin Aziz Al Dosari, this ‘means’ Abdullah, son of Aziz of the Dosari family. In this sense, therefore, the ‘al’ does denote the family name. Yet surely no Arabic speaker would ever write “‘Al’, meaning family”.

I think that there’s a more technical problem too between ‘Al’ as in, for example, Al Attiyah (or any other non-royal name) and ‘Al’ as in Al Saud or Al Thani. As you can plainly see in English there is no differences between the two, yet this is not so in Arabic. The ‘Al’ in Al Attiyah is spelt ال whereas the ‘Al’ in Al Saud is spelt آل. The only difference is the little squiggle over the ‘a’ letter (the non-curvy one). Here I look to an arabic expert to confirm, but I think that this type of ‘Al’, known as an Alif Madda, is reserved for royal families only.

Nevertheless, ignoring this technical gripe, it’s an interesting article which argues against clichéd and stereotypical Gulfy notions of the ‘inviolability’ of one’s name and the prominence of family, for I would have thought that changing one’s family’s name would be an almost sacrilegious act.